THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! An Awkward, Agonizing Theatrical Disaster Sponsored by Walmart [Review - ★½☆☆]
Last night after weeks of promotions and a $9 million investment, NBC showed off their live production of The Sound of Music starring Grammy winner Carrie Underwood as the iconic Austrian governess. This event had, at its core the wholesome family values fit for the holiday season but lacked the depth, emotion and fun required to re-imagine such a beloved story.
First and foremost, NBC shouldn't have tried to re-imagine Rogers' and Hammerstein's 1959 Broadway production. The Sound of Music was made famous by the Academy Award winning 1965 film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. That's the version everyone knows. That's the version everyone wanted to see. The difference between the two is in minor, but important, details. For example 'My Favorite Things' is sung by Maria at the abbey and not during the thunderstom with the children. That scene features the song 'The Lonely Goatherd' (sans puppet theater). If you followed along with the show's airing on sites like Twitter or Facebook you would have noticed that this moment was when a large portion of the audience lost interest. It almost became a chore to watch when you realized they pulled a bait-and-switch. A way NBC could have prepared viewers for this was to add in "Rogers' and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music" in some of their advertising. This was done in 1997 when ABC did a made for television production of "Rogers' and Hammerstein's Cinderella" starring Brandy, Whitney Houston, Bernadette Peters, and other theater trained actors. NBC should have taken a few notes from that production, as it was a much better execution of what a musical on TV should be.
Let's be honest: anyone who steps into Maria's shoes will be faced with criticism of not portraying character as well as Julie Andrews did. Naturally you won't easily find someone can come close to equaling her charming, quirky, boisterous and effortless performance that made her synonymous with the role. However, that's no excuse to just go and cast the most popular/easily recognizable name for the part regardless if she can actually perform well. That seems to be what happened here. This production fell short for many reasons, both from a theatrical standpoint and as TV entertainment, but Carrie Underwood was the most predominant. I get it, she's won a ton of Grammy Awards, is very religious, has a wholesome look and can (obviously) sing well. She was a supposedly a safe bet in a very unsafe production. Too bad she can't act. At all. American Idol aside, her one-line roles in TV shows and movies are few and far between; not to mention her lack of theater experience was painfully obvious. The breadth of Maria von Trapp's character is wide, and Underwood did not utilize the moments where she could have had inflection or an emotion other than A) crying or a B) giving an open-eyed deer in headlights look that so many actresses do their first time on stage.
I can't help but think a better choice would have been a starlet with respectable Broadway and film credits like Kristen Bell (Disney's Frozen), but in hindsight I would have even taken a Broadway staple like Kristen Chenoweth, regardless of her age. You already have one strike against you if you're putting on a Sound of Music show that's not based on the one people know, casting someone who can only master one of the lead's three necessary qualities (singing, acting, stage presence) means you've set yourself behind right out of the gate. Regardless, in the end we were given Underwood, whose bombastic singing couldn't make up for all those shouted lines and utter lack on confidence.
True Blood's Stephen Moyer was stiff and unsettling as Georg von Trapp, as though he couldn't quite shake his stoic vampiric mannerisms. Though I have a feeling this was attributed to a lack of proper direction. He has a surprisingly good singing voice and I'd love to see him in an full-blown stage production. Christian Borle, playing Max Detweiler, was another disappointment. Borle won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Black Stache in acclaimed the Broadway production Peter and the Starcatcher but is probably most well known for starring in NBC's Smash. The role of Max is much more elaborate in the stage version of The Sound of Music compared to the film, but Borle appeared bored with it and his performance was restrained to a fault. As far as casting is concerned the only redeeming performances were Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader and Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess. Both are also Broadway veterans and more than held up their side of the game. Benanti had in fact portrayed Maria on Broadway in a 1998 revival, and I can only assume how hard it must have been to watch Underwood flounder with the character. This is the second TV musical for Tony Award winner McDonald, in 1999 she played Grace in ABC's Annie. As Mother Abbess, McDonald literally brought Underwood to tears during her rendition of 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain,' it was the best moment of the entire three-hour show.
The costume choices were a bit odd as well, in particular for the party scene where dancing guests all donned exquisite gowns while Underwood's Maria wore a poofy, ugly, Disney Park-esq dirndl that looked completely out of place (and not on purpose). Why bother making Maria wear a dirndl if it doesn't make her dowdy or simple, but rather an over the top Snow White? The set designs were another issue, as they weren't practically constructed for their intended use. While obviously expensive they were overly simple, bland and appeared to be made by people who have an idea of what theater sets should look like. On top of that it did not feel as though the set was made to be filmed with multiple cameras. This was predominant in the 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen' number taking place in the "woods" where close ups on the actors's faces were continuously blocked by oddly placed trees. While we're on the topic of this scene I can't help but wonder why an actor who looks like he's in his mid-30s was cast as 16 year old Lisle's love interest Rolf. It was incredibly awkward, especially towards the end of the song when he pulls Lisle to the ground, rolls her around and forcibly kisses her before running off. It looked like an assault instead of a romantic gesture.
From the television side, someone should have realized the lack of a live audience would have been a huge detriment. Moments where laughter or triumphant applause are expected to endcap a song or performance felt eerily hollow. It's the equivalent of watching a primetime 90s sitcom without a laugh track. Overall I'm glad NBC tried something new with with their holiday programming, I just wish they had thought it through more. The Sound of Music Live! took in stellar ratings (over 18 million viewers at its peak) which should prove that there is an interest from audiences to see TV specials like this. If they plan to do another one of these they should hire more skilled cast and crew members who understand how to conceptualize and execute a big theatrical ordeal. And while they're at it, maybe cut back on the extended Walmart promotions during every commercial break. There's only so many times I can sit through watching hyper-religious families with 14 kids talk about how much they love buying Walmart groceries. None of those are even close to being my favorite things.
Zoë Gulliksen is a lifelong geek, casual cosplayer and Lord of the Rings aficionado who has a not so secret obsession with all things Broadway. A graduate of Rutgers University, she currently resides in Manhattan.